About 20 citizens from various corners of southern Vancouver Island gathered on the morning of 2 December at the entrance to the Western Forest Products log yard in Ladysmith, southerm Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I took part as a legal observer.
Background- Despite significant public opposition to further cutting in Vancouver Islands remaining old growth, or ancient, forests, the BC government has been slow to implement any decision on the future of the timber industry. People who valued the old growth as an irreplaceable habitat had asked for the government to halt further cutting, and to demand transition to second growth as a sustainable forest product. As early as 1995, the timber industry agreed with environmentalist that a transition plan away from old growth cutting should be put in place, however successive BC governments have not done so. Most recently, the current government delayed publication of a government mandated review on old growth forestry until near the end of the timber season for the year. The review has, as one of its suggestions, government-to-government negotiations on old growth, meaning until agreements are reached with all of the many first nations in BC, no plan will go forward.
Frustrated at a lack of action while remaining forests are cut, some Vancouver Island local residents organized a one day blockade of trucks carrying old growth from southern Vancouver Island to a log yard.
When the activists arrived, they kept to local pandemic protocols with everyone wearing masks and anyone outside of a shared household remaining 2 meters apart. Long banners were used which allowed 2 meter spacing to block the road.
Shortly after the road into the log yard was blocked by these citizens, a company representative came out and asked people to move off the roadway of the entrance to the log yard. The blockade was announced to him, to which the company representative responded, “I’ll call the RCMP if that’s what you want. Of course its what you want. You want the media here.” He then walked away. Clearly in his mind there was no need for dialogue or negotiation, as there was nothing to negotiate- the protesters could not possibly have legitimate grievances, and were just publicity seeking.
The blockade was at a 4 way intersection. Cars were free to travel on any of the other roads without hindrance, including all trucks going to areas other than the log yard. Also workers vehicles going to the log yard were not prevented from entry, although the protesters did try to engage workers in dialogue. None did. One aggressively and very dangerously rammed his vehicle through the citizens and banner on the entrance to the log yard.
Ordinary passersby on other roads and side walks generally expressed support for the blockade with its clearly stated message of saving old growth. However, workers at the saw mill generally made rude gestures and calls.
The first 2 logging trucks carrying old growth approached the intersection, saw the banners blocking access to the log yar and instead of turning into the log yard, turned into an adjacent open lot and stopped.
The RCMP arrived and asked for the groups intention. He stressed his respect for their right to protest and claimed his main interest was public safety. He asked that the blockade be removed and stand to the side and ‘then you can protest all you want as long as you do not hinder traffic into the work place’.
These were extremely revealing comments, whilst affirming a right to protest, he also wanted to marginalize any effect of it. This shows a breathtaking lack of understanding about what protest is, despite the affirmation a right to do so. In essence what he was telling the protesters is ‘we really don’t want to know what you have to say, so stand out of the way so we can go about our business and completely ignore you’.
After offering this supposed compromise, which apparently the officer thought was reasonable, came the threats. He stated that with the pandemic gatherings above a certain number are prohibited and observing that the gathered citizens was larger than that stated he could levy a $2,300 fine on the group. Whilst the group pointed out that they were observing pandemic protocols with mask and distance, the officer stated this is something he would consider doing. [Note, this is a discretionary fine, not mandatory, the officer has to determine that the group is posing a public health risk. This would be difficult, but it wouldn’t necessarily stop the officer from doing so. The activists would have to later take it to court to have it overturned. Also it is not clear how he arrived at the $2300 figure, as the Order states $2000 for an organizer of an event or $200 for participants.]
The RCMP then left to speak with company officials.
Some time later, two more logging trucks arrived and were met in the middle of the roadway by a WFP company representative. Each truck pulled forward, into the intersection, effectively blocking the intersection to all traffic on the adjoining roads.
While the RCMP had warned the group that they may be cited for blocking public roads, they were blocking only the entrance to the log yard, not the public roadway, but that roadway was effectively closed by the logging company trucks pulling across it diagonally.
This led to some hostility by local traffic who had to try to get through the intersection. One driver became aggressive and plowed through the intersection driving erratically and at high speed. Bad luck for him, he did this directly in front of an RCMP officers who was speaking to the protesters, and the RCMP went after the driver, it is unknown if he received a citation. Some logging company employees who had gathered on an adjacent lot had laughed and cheered as the car became aggressive. One driver sitting in the truck blocking the intersection shouted obscenities at the protesters in front of him. All this in video below.
More RCMP officers subsequently arrived and said that anyone who remained on the blockade would be subject to prosecution. The charge was criminal mischief for blocking a road. Anyone so charged would have additional conditions on them, such as no return to the area where the charge occurred. The threat of a criminal offense was quite a high penalty with lots or possible long term ramifications for anyone so cited.
One of the arriving RCMP officers said, echoing the first one “you can stand to the side and protest but you can’t prohibit someone from doing their work”. A very strange statement since just now during the pandemic, many businesses have been ordered shut for the public good. They have been ‘prohibited from working’. A lot of them. No one has a right to work, it is a privilege and comes with responsibilities, and if a job is no longer considered to be good for the society it becomes prohibited. Happens all the time. Many government policies result in both job creation and job elimination. Also, unfortunate shouts from company workers at the protesters to “get a job”. I can’t believe people still shout this, but it again shows a mind state which does not accept that these people could have any form of legitimate grievance. Of course, some of them may well be very afraid that this would negatively affect their work, despite the fact that the blockade activists attempted to make clear by their signs that was not logging they they were opposed to, only old growth logging.
Negotiations dragged on for some time on this, and a set of people willing to be arrested separated from those unwilling to be arrested that day. As negotiations continued until the time when the blockade was to end, everyone then left after notifying the RCMP and company that they were ending the blockade for that day.
As a legal observer, I maintained neutrality and stood away from the group of people forming the blockade or holding signs and banners. I only came close when there were interactions between either the blockade participants and the RCMP or the company representatives so I could fairly record the interaction.
Standing on the side I overheard the company employees who were gathered in the yard where the earlier logging trucks had parked, who said “What is taking the police so long? It is a no-brainer! Just bring a truck and haul all these protesters away!” From these remarks it is apparent that they believed the role of the police is to remove inconveniences.
The RCMP for its part, could have taken a stance of non-interference in the protest and just routed traffic to assure public safety. They didn’t do much of that, but focused their attention on trying to remove the protest instead. If the RCMP had not interfered, it would have led to a situation where the company would need to decide if it wanted to suspend operations for the blockade or perhaps negotiate with the protest.
I wonder if any of them watched CBC news the previous day. In India, a group of farmers were blocking roads to the capital New Delhi and being harassed and persecuted by police for doing so. The only foreign leader to give them support was the Prime Minister of Canada, who stated, “Canada will always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protest. Healthy democracies allow peaceful protest. I urge those involved to uphold this fundamental right.”
Currently, old growth forests can be legally cut down. This could continue until none are left standing in British Columbia. A very few ancient forests continue to live happily in a very few protected areas. And virtually all those enclaves of old forest have only been established after citizen action, frequently involving blockades. Blockades are a peaceful form of free of expression guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They may be inconvenient, but they are peaceful.
The RCMP should uphold the free expression bringing up moral issues of public policy, however in Ladysmith the RCMP instead demonstrated they seek play the role of the blunt instrument for the financial interests which profit off ancient forest destruction.
A further observation is that the blocking of the public intersection by the WFP trucks, which escalated action by the RCMP in their threats of legal sanctions on the blockade participants, occurred immediately after the RCMP went to speak with the company representatives, one of whom went to the intersection and instructed the arriving trucks to pull forward to that spot. All subsequent RCMP activity was solely focused on the blockade, not traffic management.
The RCMP is not the enforcement arm of the forest industry. Their officers should be trained to adapt a policy of strict non-interference and public safety and allow social interests to be expressed and pursued freely.
Note: Nonviolence International Canada has supported the training of legal observers at public demonstrations. Legal observers should know law relevant to public gatherings, rights and freedoms and local ordinances and remain strictly outside the activities of events which they monitor and be prepared to report clearly on any infractions observed from by any party.